5 Influential Muslim Philosophers You Should Know About24 Jun 2020
These five Muslim philosophers, in the broadest sense of the term, have been great contributors to the Islamic legacy that has shaped much of the intellectual and technological advancements of the world as we know it. Over the course of human history, new ideas have emerged; some often contentious, and have challenged the status quo. Islamic philosophy has been a valuable part of this process. Below, I have chosen five philosophers that I believe are pertinent to our understanding of Islamic philosophy today. (Although, this is a very brief insight into what these men brought to the world of philosophy and Islam, and a personal exploration into any one of these thinkers will bear more fruit than we might think!) Are you excited?
1. Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037)
It is impossible to summarize the works of Ibn Sina, and even more impossible to draw a line of his influence. He was a polymath well versed in medicine, cosmology, theology, philosophy, metaphysics, and heavily influenced by Aristotelian thought. It’s difficult to introduce a figure like Ibn Sina whilst doing justice to the various arguments he’s discussed and contended with his whole life.
What has always been interesting for me is his theory of emanation. He argues for a Necessary Being (named the ‘Unmoved Mover’ in Aristotle’s thought, i.e. God) from which the rest of existence flows through the process of emanation. Much like the sun emanates rays of light in varying degrees, where the closer you are to it, the brighter it is, this process of emanation, he argues, is a part of God’s Essence. Many thinkers have disagreed on this point, because from this, it is understood that God cannot have an intention that relates to the world. He is forced by the nature of His Essence to emanate the rest of existing beings. Needless to say, this contradicts what most Muslim thinkers, as well as Muslims as a whole believe; God is invested in the particulars of our everyday lives and intends to create.
Ibn Sina’s argument is far more complex and deserves the highest attention because it is through this theory (of emanation) he “solves” the infamous Problem of Evil, which attempts to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and loving God with the existence of ‘evil’ and suffering.
2. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111)
Influential does not begin to describe the effects of al-Ghazzali’s thought and works which, to this day, are widely read and known. Like most other Muslim thinkers, he studied a wide-range of topics, but is known to many as a Sufi or mystic. Although included on this list of philosophers, he didn’t consider himself a philosopher. Despite this, he has written extensively on the topic. He has sternly criticized some thinkers on this list, but he is an essential personality to understand if we are to learn about anyone else.
Many attribute David Hume for the skeptical undertaking and scrutiny of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, but it was Al-Ghazzali who actually fleshed-out the discussion hundreds of years earlier. He did well to point out the key distinction between cause and effect, arguing that it is our repeated human experience that links events together as cause and effect. They are separate events, and in reality, one does not depend on another. More to Al-Ghazzali’s point than Hume’s, instead of a cause and effect system, he argues, God creates the linkage between events. For example, for fire to burn wood, God commands the fire to burn the wood each time. This means that the attribute of burning is separate and not part of the fire’s essence. An interesting point of contention can be seen in the Qur’an, when God commands the fire to be cool for Prophet Abraham (21:69), making burning a part of the fire’s essence. Otherwise, God wouldn’t have commanded anything and the fire would have never burned him.
3. Ibn Rushd or Averroes (1126-1198)
When studying the history of Islamic philosophy from Ibn Sina onwards, it’s impossible to pass over Ibn Rushd. His works and arguments contend with the most polarising issues that divided many, including Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazzali. His way of writing takes a ‘softer’ tone, which makes the process of reading in itself enjoyable, but more importantly, so do his ideas. His arguments can be seen as the ‘bridge’ between two opposite ends of the spectrum – a moderate approach.
There is plenty to appreciate from Ibn Rushd, but what is most simple and profound is his Decisive Treatise. It’s a short work in which Ibn Rushd makes the case for philosophy insomuch as it is a reflection and consideration as an obligation for Muslims. It is perhaps the most concise and beautiful work I’ve read in classical Islamic philosophy (Al-Kindi’s Letter On the Method of How to Dispel Sorrows is a close second).
“If the activity of philosophy is nothing more than reflection upon existing things, and consideration of them insofar as they are an indication of the Artisan – I mean insofar as they are artifacts, for existing things indicate the Artisan only through cognizance of the art in them, and the more complete the cognizance of the art in them is, the more complete is the cognizance of the Artisan.” (Decisive Treatise, p.1).
In other words, reflect and consider the world around you to gain knowledge and understanding of Allah. It’s a beautiful practice, one recognized in the Qur’an by its repeated phrases of “Look” or “Reflect”.
4. Shahab ad-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191)
Suhrawardi is not as widely known as the others on this list, but he was heavily influenced by Ibn Sina and certainly influenced later philosophers like Mulla Sadra. In Islamic Philosophy, unlike Modern Philosophy, there are lasting schools of thought, in this sense, more than just individual thinkers with opposing views. In that light, it’s important to see the new school Suhrawardi established, since it wasn’t common for an entirely new school of thought to be born. Although he was influenced by Ibn Sina and the ‘Peripatetic’ school*, he only used some of their methodologies and founded the ‘Illuminationist’ school**. He was invested in the study of knowledge, or epistemology, and metaphysics.
One of his main concerns was with definitions. He disagreed with Aristotle and more recently, Ibn Sina, that definitions are essential and that to know something, say a rock, you must have knowledge about it beforehand. Suhrawardi takes a more Platonic (that is, from Plato) view on definitions and consequently knowledge. He believes everything is light and self-conscious in varying degrees (except for things that are total darkness), and the only way to know something is to first realize oneself. Then, by extension all things can be known. This requires vision of the thing, making Suhrawardi’s theory of knowledge experiential. You don’t need primary knowledge or intuition beforehand, but an experience of a thing to grasp it.
His critique of the Aristotelian model, if correct, attacks the fundamental principle of Aristotle’s philosophy making it baseless at worst and problematic at best. It’s amazing to see this done by a thinker who lived for only 37 years.
*School of philosophy in Ancient Greece of which teachings derive mainly from Aristotle. Early Islamist philosophy managed to preserve the teachings of the school after its decline which aided in its rediscovery in Europe.
**Branch of Islamic philosophy founded in the 12th century which draws on ancient Iranian philosophy and neoplatonism.
5. Sadr ad-Din Muhammad Shirazi or Mulla Sadra 1572-1640
Mulla Sadra’s name is known widely across the globe today, with his philosophy influencing many Muslim thinkers in the last century. His approach to philosophy is very similar to the Illuminationist school and its principles. For instance, in order to increase his self-awareness, he would spend some time alone after formally studying, following a strict regimen of both meditation and study. In fact, he attributes many of his arguments and ideas as having been revealed to him in a visionary experience.
Perhaps his most celebrated work is known as Asfar, (the full name is al-Asfar al-arba’at al-‘aqliyyah) or the “Four Intellectual Journeys.” It includes a wide variety of subjects in which Mulla Sadra discusses in-depth, at the heart of which is the perfecting of the human soul. His philosophy is not fully Illuminationist or Peripatetic, but a sound reconstruction of both which synthesises many early ideas. As I mentioned earlier, Ibn Sina believed God could not know the particulars of our everyday lives, but Mulla Sadra rejects this. He said that he’d gained full knowledge of this issue through inspiration, but did not divulge everything as it was too complicated to be shared.
From what he has said, he believed God knows every particular, every atom (as mentioned in the Qur’an), in a special way because of the very fact that it exists. The argument is far more complex than can be summarised, but this was the caliber at which Mulla Sadra brought new and old ideas together.
Although this is only a brief discussion of only a handful of influential thinkers, one hopes this will enlighten those skeptical of Islam’s contributions to the world, and energise those who wish to dive further into the history of a civilisation that inspired countless intellectual developments. I hope it will inspire you as well.